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Wood Chips, Pea Gravel, Rubber Mats–Playground Safety First! February 10, 2010

Posted by naj24 in Environmental Health, Prevention.

Did you ever play hide-and-go-seek in your neighborhood playground?  I sure did.  I also remember the merry-go-round that I used to give my cousins fun rides on by spinning them continuously.  I remember climbing the jungle gym, and showing off that I could jump off of it because it was so high. Of course at that age it didn’t occur to me that any serious accidents could come from public playground equipment.  Recently, I looked over the public playground safety checklist offered by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), just to see if I was playing in a safe enough environment.  It seemed like my old neighborhood playground was in compliance with the majority of safety measures on the checklist as far as I can remember, including the one requiring play structures more than 30 inches high to be spaced at least 9 feet apart.  Others, however, were more dubious, like having surfaces around the playground equipment covered with at least 12 inches (in depth) of wood chips, mulch, sand or pea gravel.  I remember our old playground having wood chips, but not so much of it.  Did any of this matter though?

I think the checklist offered by the U.S. CPSC is a good idea, but I question its authority due to lack of awareness on the subject and possible lack of enforcement of the guidelines.  First of all, wouldn’t local authorities have greater influence on the types of playground structures developed in their neighborhood?  In less affluent neighborhoods, this could translate into unsafe structures due to insufficient funding.  How are community leaders to know what is safe or unsafe for kids? I was not aware of these guidelines before navigating through the CPSC website.  I doubt most parents or community planners would know about these guidelines as well, unless they actively sought out the information.  In the case of a violation, also, there are only so many playground safety inspectors (8,000 worldwide as of 2001), so it doesn’t seem like there could be proper enforcement. Of interest is the fact that violations of the CPSC guidelines still occur and lead to incidences of serious injury or even fatality. 

Some of the common violations of playground safety include 1) lack of proper surfacing material, 2) exposure to protruding objects like “S-hooks,” and 3) insufficient use space around common play structures such as open belt swings.  Almost 79 % of playground injuries occur due to falls.  This information has been compiled in The Dirty Dozen, a list of common playground safety concerns published by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA).

Perhaps there is a conflict of interest between national and local authorities causing these injuries to occur.  Perhaps it is due to a lack of funding or knowledge at the local level.  In any case, there is more room for improvement as over 200,000 children still visit the emergency room for playground-related injuries each year.
Interestingly enough, anyone can become involved in this issue.  As an adult, you can become a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI) by registering for a course and taking an exam.  If you’re not yet 18, you can be a supporter or contributor to the National Recreation and Park Association, which developed the playground-safety training program.  I think it is quite helpful to be able to collect the support of all individuals, including public health professionals, parents, teens and children in such an effort which promotes a specific public health issue.  While the topic just happened to become of interest to me through web research, I am glad I learned about it sooner than later because it might be helpful one day in the future.



1. Gretchen Giannelli - February 18, 2010

As the parent of two teenagers it has been interesting to watch playground safety issues evolve over time. They used to be made of metal and/or wood. Nail heads stuck out all over the place catching on clothes and kids got splinters. The poles and slides were metal and would get hot enough to burn exposed skin. Some slides had bare dirt or even concrete or asphalt at the bottom of the slide.

About 10 years ago, the wood got replaced by plastic due to both splinter and nail issues, but also from contaminants such as arsenic in treated wood. Mulch material was added around the playgrounds to cushion falls, but from time to time swings still got removed for causing injuries. I wonder what the next improvement will be?

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